On Monday, I discussed some of the TV show music cues I liked from this year. Today I’m providing a list of my favorite albums. I’m not really one for hierarchies. There is a top three (kinda), but after that it’s unranked because what does it mean to be the seventh-best record of the year really? That said, it’s no accident that many of these entries interrogate citizenship in a year profoundly defined by malevolent structures and forces that unequally restrict and allocate who gets to be a citizen and under what conditions. It’s also quite deliberate that many of these albums were self-produced by women resisting the pressure to justify themselves. It’s not a comprehensive list, as undoubtedly soon I’ll unearth a treasure or someone will recommend something. Year-end lists are comforting narratives we craft about our own tastes to cope with the passage of time and I always like returning to the past and finding things I missed in order to challenge canon-making’s ossification. Your music may be part of that unceasing process of discovery, and I look forward to hearing it later.
Erykah Badu – But You Caint Use My Phone (Motown/Control Freaq)
Last month Badu released this mixtape, which she co-produced with Zach Witness. End of the year, and just in time. Badu always sounds warm even when what she’s saying is cold, and peerlessly scribbles in the margins of song form. That’s how she’s able to turn Drake’s “Hotline Bling” into a revision of her 1997 hit “Tyrone” and a character study of the woman on the other end of that booty call. But what resonates most is Caint’s aching heart. Badu pursues a thematic interest in mobile technology through the lens of nostalgia, as though she wants to return to a time when we didn’t constantly use our phones to broadcast out and look in. Smartphones give us the ability to connect, whether we’re touching base with old friends or documenting instances of social injustice that have always been there but social media can differently illuminate. But you can’t unsee Eric Garner getting the life wrung out of him. However, you can channel the anger that comes with that realization into art and community and try to keep who you have and grow with them. That’s probably why she’s a doula. And it may be why so many of her albums’ final songs—“Green Eyes,” “Out My Mind (Just in Time)”—are about Andre or him in relation to other partnerships that fell apart or shifted. And that’s also why their reworking of the Isley Brothers’ “Hello It’s Me,” which concludes Caint, is lovely and bittersweet like divorced parents sharing a slow dance at their kid’s wedding reception. This year Badu came on silly like a LOL cat meme, flirty like a dirty joke told in emojis, weary like a 2 a.m. Facebook lurk, and contrarian like a flip phone or documenting a hate crime in vertical mode. Says the artist in another song that’s hot and cold: “that’s so me.”
Sleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love (Sub Pop)
Rock has a lot of folk heroes. Often successful execution determines heroism, whether it’s getting strangers to chant a chorus with total sincerity or smashing a guitar with balletic force for a photographer. Heroes don’t miss, because men get to be heroes and we often make excuses when they do. We also make exceptions of women when they try, which is why Broad City’s Ilana Glazer offered a great corrective to the “all-girl band” questions that haunt this band by asking them in a recent interview “does rocking hard mean gender equality to you?” But in Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, Carrie Brownstein celebrates the virtue of near-misses, which goes hand in glove with the memoir’s other major contribution: fandom’s equalizing potential to the creative process (or: why so many of Sleater-Kinney’s songs are about making music).
Earlier this year, I saw Sleater-Kinney perform at Riverside Theatre. My adolescence did not make room for Sleater-Kinney because I couldn’t hear the electric guitar’s feminist potential or entertain sexist assumptions from boys at shows about my fandom. Our paths finally crossed with No Cities to Love, an “electric” record in every sense, but particularly in how Brownstein, Corin Tucker, and Janet Weiss wield their instruments, voices, and words to convey the spark and heat of idealism sharpening into wisdom. One of riot grrrl’s biggest contributions to contemporary feminism was how it prioritized young women’s equal participation in music’s production and reception. “Girls to the front” wasn’t a slogan. Stopping a set to teach fans how to play your song wasn’t a gimmick. It rearranged space to put young women in the middle. Even though I had a birds-eye view of the set, they sounded so close that it felt like I was on stage with them. But the girls in the front—campers from Milwaukee’s chapter of Girls Rock Camp—could make out their chord and drum patterns, sweat, and discarded pics, and take notes. That’s heroism.
Lizzo – Big GRRRL, Small World (Totally Gross National Product)
Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly (Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope)
At a recent speaking engagement, a UW-Madison student asked Ta-Nehesi Coates what he thought about Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, prefacing his question with the explanation that it was one of the first hip-hop albums to deal with race. Coates countered this statement by name-checking Public Enemy before admitting that he hadn’t listened to Lamar’s record, which came out a few weeks before the event. In the back of the hall, this question seemed like a missed opportunity on three fronts. First, shoulda asked Coates about comic books dude. Second, why assume that one of race relations’ most vital critical thinkers has listened to your new favorite hip-hop record? Third, check the footnotes. Butterfly’s sound and collaborators situate Lamar’s flow within G-Funk’s grammar, one of his hometown’s major innovations and a sub-genre heavily indebted to 70s funk’s radical streak as a way to turn living in a police state into art. How do you process Rodney King? Your auntie’s record collection may have answers.
But young people often turn to their immediate context to figure out how to become adults. A necessary part of that process is realizing that some people get to go to college while others end up in prison or profiled or killed, confront the profound injustice at the root of this realization, and do something transformative with that knowledge. And it’s also why listening to records isn’t in itself a political act, but can be a resource for social change. Two records offered that kind of equipment for living this year. In April, Lamar released his third album. Eight months later, Minneapolis-based rapper Lizzo reached the same milestone at the tail end of the year after many year-end lists were drafted. Both are kaleidoscopic, ambitious efforts that impressively demonstrate the range and personality of the talent at their center. Both quote liberally from hip-hop’s past, as well as nod to its proximity to other genres (Lamar has jazz, Lizzo has dance). One rapper productively tests the commercial recording industry’s artistic limits, while the other demonstrates her entrepreneurial acumen by shirking interest from the majors to run her own label. Lamar struggles with hip-hop’s entrenched misogyny, while Lizzo applies an intersectional feminist critical lens to the genre and in doing so opens it up as a productive space for commentary and women’s artistic collaboration. Oh, and they’re both fun, immersive listening experiences. Lamar’s music evokes night-driving as a way to clear an unquiet mind and defy racial profiling. Lizzo’s music sees beyond #SquadGoals to observe how the giddy female energy of slumber parties and their rituals—dance routines, beauty and masturbation life hacks, gossip that chips at hegemony—resemble consciousness-raising sessions. Blast these albums in the dorms, kids. And learn their lessons. You are the future, and there’s work to do.
Empress Of – Me (XL Recordings)
Lorely Rodriguez makes music that sounds like a woman throwing a jewelry box against the wall, or my kind of pop. Me is Rodriguez’s follow-up to 2013’s Systems and her proper full-length debut. Its title may double as a form of clarification. Rodriguez produced this album and released it in a year when Jessica Hopper’s interview with Björk (a kindred spirit, if not a direct influence) spawned a Tumblr archive of images of female musicians, producers, and engineers to demonstrate that, indeed, women make music and authorship cannot be dead until it is equally applied to them. What follows is one of the most exquisitely textured and assured debut efforts of the year, propelled by Rodriguez’s clear, insistent voice. “What do you see in the mirror when you’re feeling restless? Do you see a man who isn’t there?” she asks on the breathtaking “Standard,” negotiating a distorted 4/4 beat pattern before catapulting over it. “Living for the sake of living, I can promise you no one cares,” she concludes on the other side of the chorus. That may be true, and pictures of women working behind mixing desks cannot change that for some people. But I care, and this music sounds like the future.
Grimes – Art Angels (4AD)
Oscar Isaac said in a recent Details profile that “[i]n order to be a leading actor everyone has to be an action star, to a certain extent.” Female pop stars have known this for generations (see also: LaBelle’s intergalactic girl gang drag, Kate Bush in the “Army Dreamers” video, Madonna’s biceps, Beyoncé standing fifty feet tall like Gene Simmons in front of the word “FEMINIST” at the VMAs). To follow up her 2012 breakthrough Visions, Claire Boucher emerged from playing video games in her basement and found the end of world. More accurately, she scrapped an album’s worth of songs that didn’t interest her and commandeered Pro Tools like Imperator Furiosa steering the War Rig and circled back to find that Art Angels’ apocalyptic Jock Jams sound was always there. Extending the Fury Road comparison to geopolitics, I haven’t settled my opinion on Boucher’s cultural omnivorousness. But the decision to work with Janelle Monáe and Aristophanes suggests coalition-building over colonization. And I would’ve left “REALiTi” alone, but sometimes we must destroy what’s beautiful to taste Valhalla all shiny and chrome.
Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (Mom + Pop)
Here’s something Courtney Barnett revealed about herself in a recent conversation with Kim Deal: Sometimes shy people have so much to say and they don’t talk often because they’re forever turning over phrases in their heads and searching for the right words so they say them all at once. And sometimes they just sit. Barnett shreds too. If these masterfully written songs sound pear-shaped, you may need to lay down because she’s approaching them sideways.
Joanna Newsom – Divers (Drag City)
“Sons of Bob Dylan” appears in the middle of novelty folk singer Wally Pleasant’s 1994 album, Houses of the Holy Moly. Its argument is simple: every singer-songwriter (Lou, Bruce, Neil, etc.) is derivative of Bob Dylan, who was himself billed as the next Woody Guthrie, and the recording industry is always willing to commodify their constructed authenticity. That they’re all dudes is no accident. Toward the end of The Punk Singer, Kathleen Hanna muses “I just think there’s this certain assumption that when a man tells the truth it’s the truth and when, as a woman, I go to tell the truth, I feel like I have to negotiate the way I’ll be perceived.” As someone who is often written off as twee because of her harp, brittle voice, and decorously feminine self-presentation, Joanna Newsom must feel this sentiment in her bones. That’s why it was so punk when she listed her wardrobe’s textures and fabrics to conclude her last album as a nod to the empty closet her lover would get back after their break-up. On this album, she ponders what it’s like to love someone so deeply that you’re willing to watch them die after a long life together through a collection of intricate, masterfully arranged compositions. There’s nothing less twee than spanning time and death do us part. Joanna Newsom is not the next Bob Dylan, or Joni Mitchell, or Karen Dalton, or Kate Bush. She’s growing into something else: herself.
Shamir – Ratchet (XL)
Mickey Mouse croons to a lover he wants or doesn’t, reads yuh’ to filth, then sashays away. Most parties aren’t as fun as this record, including the records about parties, thanks to Shamir’s magnetic self-possession and Nick Sylvester’s buoyant production. In an alternate reality, Shamir rescues Alessia Cara from the party she’s withstanding in “Here” (an excellent rejoinder to Can’t Feel My Face-core, by the way) and they fire up the smoke machine at his house.
Jenny Hval – Apocalypse, girl (Sacred Bones)
Album title of the year, no question. And Hval’s ear for composition implies a steady diet of late 90s R&B—particularly the airy presence of Aaliyah’s dexterous soprano—and liturgical music. Its sense of the divine corresponds with its theoretical ambitions, a pursuit that Stuart Hall memorably compared to “wrestling with the angels.” Crafting a concept album about how ambivalence organizes feminists’ daily lives offers listeners few immediate rewards. Feminism is often co-opted to tell comforting narratives about progress and autonomy that privilege the concerns of middle-class white women; essentialize and condescend to women committed to leveling gender inequality without exploiting imperialism; and comply with capitalism’s unequal distribution of resources at work, home, and in public. In the West, its historical narrative is often organized in metaphorical waves, which justifies generational factions, misapprehends political gains’ uniform distribution, and ignores undertow. Finally feminism can bend toward dogma and splinter into contradiction, which often means to apply it is to misapply it. This might be why so many of these songs—“Why This?” the end of “That Battle Is Over”—sound like they are resisting their own disintegration. But this album is so alive with words and ideas—including the radical potential of “soft dick rock” and self-care—that it’s a pleasure to wrestle with it again and again.
fka twigs – M3LL155X EP (Young Turks)
Earlier this year I scrapped a comparative analysis of Under the Skin and Ex Machina, which put Mica Levi’s eerie score from the former in conversation with the pulsing sounds Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow produced for the latter. It never materialized, as the comparison praised Jonathan Glazer’s film to hang Alex Garland’s three-hander and that’s lazy criticism. Also, such comparisons reduce the individual merits of Scarlett Johansson’s and Alicia Vikander’s uncanny valley performances as an extraterrestrial seductress and an Edenic robot. Both offer incisive, particular critiques about what it means to have beautiful female bodies and grapple with men forcing their will upon them. In the real world women distance themselves from their bodies all the time to cope with this trauma, looming or endured. These actresses metaphorize that experience and demonstrate the thrill of sentience scaffolding resistance as their characters wonder: “what is my body if I can’t enjoy it?”
What does this have to do with M3LL15X? For one, the long-form video is a nice pairing. In particular, “I’m Your Doll” will be used in gender and media studies classes to talk about consent and objectification for as long as graduate programs hire hipsters to teach college students about feminism. Ultimately, M3LL155X (pronounced “Melissa,” perhaps the name of one of Ex Machina’s discarded prototypes) investigates how sexiness curdles into body horror out of twigs’s boredom and disgust with the commodification of the female form. And it offers an alternative to the post-racial implications of Ex Machina’s ending by imagining a future where black female pop stars rebel alongside artificial intelligence. As an EP, it trades songs for Concepts. But it’s also one of 2015’s best science fiction movies about technology’s fraught relationship with sexuality.
Deradoorian – The Expanding Flower Planet (anticon.)
The best thing about part-singing is the moment when everyone breathes together and blends their voices to create a unified sound that vibrates like a beam of light you can hear. That’s way trippy, but Angel Deradoorian is clearly after this moment because she creates it time and again—most magically with her sister Arlene and Niki Randa–on this beautiful, unassuming record that breaks through the air like sun through windows after a rainstorm. It’s a sound she helped chase as a member of Dirty Projectors, who were basically choir nerds with psychedelic tendencies. But there’s a stabilizing force to part-singing on this record, which Deradoorian wrote largely as a manifestation of her doubt and loneliness as a Los Angeles transplant without a band. And a lesson too: good solo artists always find their way when they collaborate with other musicians.
Carly Rae Jepsen – E*MO*TION (Interscope/School Boy)
This album’s modest chart performance is baffling, but the music critics know about this one like they knew about Kylie Minogue in 2001. Pop music is ultimately about interpreting personal e*mo*tions with your voice that large audiences can immediately identify with and share. For female pop stars this often means “pretend that you like it.” This is why so many women (and Harmony Korine) have complicated feelings about Britney Spears. Such expectations also lay bare authenticity’s contradictory and unequal allocation between male and female artists (see also: Newsom, Joanna). What I like about this record—apart from how its airbrushed synths, resilient programmed drums, and neon-bright sax flourishes bullseye the pleasure center (kudos, production team)—is Jepsen’s embodied conviction as a singer. Listen to how she whispers “I’ll find your lips in the streetlight” on “Run Away With Me,” E*MO*TION’s launch pad. It’s a slyly sexy turn of phrase and an excellent line reading, because even if the song’s subject is undefined (you), Jepsen conjures a real person. As listeners we can only witness the ease of their intimacy within the ellipsis of a pop song, but we can also delight in finding our own specific people to fly with over the city, city. Which is where pop lives anyway.
It’s hard to write a tone poem to your favorite coffee mug, but you’re glad to hold it every morning. Here are some more great albums that found their way into this year’s dark corners and small moments, even though I couldn’t find clever words to describe their charms.
THEESatisfaction – EarthEE (Sub Pop)
Gavin Turek + TOKiMONSTA – You’re Invited (Young Art Records)
Noveller – Fantastic Planet (Fire Records)
Ibeyi – Ibeyi (XL)
Kelela – Hallucinogen EP (Warp/Cherry Coffee)
Björk – Vulnicura (One Little Indian)
Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color (ATO Records)
Overcoats – Overcoats EP (self-released)
The Selecter – Subculture (Vocaphone Music)
Erase Errata – Lost Weekend (Under the Sun)
Lana Del Rey – Honeymoon (Interscope)
Demi Lovato – Confident (Universal)
Frankie Cosmos – Fit Me In (Bayonet)
Holly Herndon – Platform (4AD/Rvng Intl.)
Julia Holter – Have You in My Wildness (Domino)
Bouquet – In a Dream EP (Ulrike/Folktale)
Last night, I got my nose out of the book I was reading (Ien Ang’s Desperately Seeking the Audience, for curious parties) and went out to shake a tail feather. The Majestic, a local venue in Madison, hosted a hip hop-themed 80s vs. 90s dance party.
Obviously, I don’t need to defend the merits of hip hop’s golden era. OutKast’s ATLiens, Tribe’s Midnight Marauders, Queen Latifah’s All Hail the Queen, Wu-Tang’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), Nas’ Illmatic, Biggie’s Ready to Die, Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt, Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, De La Soul’s Stakes Is High, Missy Elliott’s Supa Dupa Fly, Pharcyde’s Bizarre Ride, Goodie Mob’s Soul Food, Salt ‘N’ Pepa’s Very Necessary, Ice Cube’s Amerikkka’s Most Wanted, Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet, MC Lyte’s Lyte as a Rock, and The Fugees’ The Score all belong in the history books as much as they do in my car. Since this music scored my adolescence and many bedroom dance parties, I was happy to raise a glass and toast myself on the floor.
As this was the music of my youth, it was also the music of my feminist awakening. While I recognize that many female MCs don’t associate with the term “feminism,” their commanding presence and demand for self-respect and sexual autonomy was hugely influential on how I came to understand the world and my place in it as a teenage girl and later as an adult woman. Later I’d acquire a copy of Tricia Rose’s definitive Black Noise, a tremendously influential piece of hip hop scholarship that I believe has only been surpassed by her more recent effort, The Hip Hop Wars.
Lest we encase this era of mainstream hip hop in amber, there are a number of contemporary female MCs whose careers and artistic contributions warrant attention, including Psalm One, Dessa, Las Krudas, Nicki Minaj, Invincible, Miz Korona, MicahTron, Georgia Anne Muldrow, Lady Sovereign, JNaturaL, Rita J, and Jean Grae, among so many others. Let’s also not forget the veteran female artists who rose to prominence during this point in popular musical history and are still in the game. Missy forever.
Last night, the deejay represented Ladybug Mecca from Digable Planets, Lauryn Hill in Nas’ “If I Ruled the World,” along with Janet Jackson, Salt ‘N’ Pepa, Queen Latifah, and (after I checked in with one of the deejays) TLC. But c’mon–this was a monumental time for women in hip hop, as well as female R&B groups who were influenced by hip hop and hip hop culture. A handful of songs hardly suffice when you could devote an entire night to women’s contributions to hip hop during this period.
To be fair, I didn’t hear Positive K’s “I Got a Man,” Bone Thugs’ “First of the Month,” or the Bad Boy remix of Craig Mac’s “Flava in Your Ear” either. But as fine a time as I had last night, there were a number of voices I’d like to have heard from folks like Amil, Erykah Badu, Eve, Lil Kim, Rah Digga, Foxy Brown, maybe even dig deep into the crates for some Sparky D. Some of them may have gotten their due after I left. But all of them necessitate future dance parties. Maybe some clips can help get one started. Feel free to make requests.
The other night, I met up with Carla DeSantis Black, creator of ROCKRGRL Magazine, who moved to Austin late last year. We share some mutual friends and some obvious interests, so it was a natural meeting. I talked about the blog, school, and other things I’m working on. She talked about some projects she’s getting off the ground. We talked about facilitating workshops for Girls Rock Camp and the current state of women in music.
One thing that she brought up that I found especially interesting was the recent crop of female artists using pseudonyms instead of their given names. I hadn’t really thought about it much, but indeed it’s a phenomenon–Glasser, tUnE-yArDs, Bat for Lashes, St. Vincent, Noveller, Circuit des Yeux. Many of these women either started out or continue to write, record, and tour as solo artists. Black is encouraging female artists who record under aliases and do much/all of their act’s writing, recording, and performing to use their given names in order to claim ownership of their work.
Of course, adopting a nom de plume is standard practice in popular music. Freddie Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsara. Erica Wright renamed herself Erykah Badu to honor her African roots. In the grand tradition of drag artists, Christeene Vale was born Paul Soileau. The Donnas and the Ramones created a group identity by sticking to one name. David Bowie was born David Jones, but didn’t want to be confused with the Monkees’ front man. Given hip hop’s inclination toward nicknames, Kanye West’s decision to record under his given name is damn near revolutionary and certainly political. My presence is a present, kiss my ass.
The process of renaming is as old as the entertainment industry. A-list aspirants continue to lop “ethnic” surnames, use middle names, or invent stage names. Reinvention is intrinsic to constructing a persona. Often, a performer’s decision to adopt a stage name says a great deal about racial and ethnic identity and the politics of assimilation. In music, which is tied to fantasy and the imagination, it may also say something about artistic creativity, the desire for metamorphosis, and a need for creative release shared between performer and fan. Actors often use stage names to seem more relateable to an audience. Musicians often use them to trouble relatability, if not transcend human existence entirely.
But what does it mean when female musicians use a moniker instead of their given names, especially white women associated with indie music? Is it a defense against being reduced to a chick musician or singer-songwriter? Do aliases subvert expectations and provide artists more space for play? Is it particular to female artists already prone to musical abstraction who eschew traditional instrumentation, or are we seeing it elsewhere? Can we apply these concerns to female MCs, deejays, and electronic artists, who usually go by nicknames and aliases as well? Does it obscure their individual efforts? Is it political? Is it anti-feminist? What do you think?
You know what I love to watch? Women dancing. No, icky trolls, I don’t mean strippers, though like Missy says, “ain’t no shame, ladies do your thang . . . just make sure you’re ahead of the game.” I’m referring to females claiming ownership of their bodies through dance, which of course includes strippers as much as it presumes Kate Bush. I bet Louise Lecavalier knows what I’m talking about and would probably add that there’s joy to be felt in stretching your body’s physical limits. No doubt Merrill Garbus would chime with a reminder not to forget the importance of forging a communal spirit. Movement creates an index of symbols and guiding a beat with your body can feel very powerful indeed. The other night, at a friend’s wedding reception, I had the pleasure of remembering that with friends. I hope you do too.
This first one is EMA’s “California,” a single off her debut solo record, Past Life Martyred Saints. Erika Anderson’s movements here aren’t strict dance, but they are clearly choreographed for this song, as she’s performed this routine at shows.
The second clip is for movement one of Erykah Badu’s “Out My Mind (Just In Time),” which Badu directed. Hopefully it is well-known that I think Badu’s a genius, like how Ellen Willis thought Janis Joplin was a genius. Badu is a master of embodying intangible feelings with her voice and body, as she does here. If her music and image is “difficult” to some (and “crazy” to ableists), it’s only because she’s telling the truth. Kristen at Dear Black Woman, posted this on her Facebook profile and it’s so great I had to jot off an entire post around it. Thank you for making my day, ma’am.
Friends, I’ve been distracted lately.
I’m in the beginning stages of a new creative project. I’m in the process of receiving professional news that might change the course of my life (and where I live it) considerably. This involves, among other things, paperwork. I’ve been pretty busy with a work project, and helped judge a history fair this morning. I’m also going to be covering the music portion of SXSW for Bitch. While I’m thrilled to help provide coverage (and to eat breakfast tacos with some delightful Portlanders), it means I’ve been spending most of my free time trolling the site and staying abreast of announcements for day parties and showcases. I’ve also been keeping tabs on the protests in Wisconsin regarding Governor Scott Walker’s proposed Budget Repair Bill because I’m personally invested in the outcome for a few different reasons (raises solidarity fist to friends and acquaintances in the academy who are standing against union busting).
I don’t like to apologize for not updating here often, especially since I’m hardly a slouch in that department. But I’ve also been sitting on posts on Alicia Keys, Mahalia Jackson’s cameo in Imitation of Life, Portlandia, and a few other forthcoming posts that I haven’t been able to finish because my mind is elsewhere.
But this post isn’t an apology. It isn’t a complaint either. I’m lucky to have a steady, supportive readership and I anticipate that remains true regardless of how prolific or timely I am with posts. As a thank you, I thought I’d devote a short entry to new music videos I’m really into these days. As a trigger warning, note that the Esben and the Witch clip contains violent imagery, but we can debate its effectiveness in the comments section. To view, click on the song titles.
“Gone Baby Don’t Be Long”
Esben and the Witch
So, we’re having a “snow day” in Austin. I know some friends are always like “seriously?” when the city shuts down for half an inch of fast-melting snow, but I also like a three-day weekend. A friend’s coming in from Los Angeles, I have some Deadwood to watch, Karaoke Underground returns from a Midwest tour, and apparently Super Bowl Sunday is around the corner. In honor of all this, some clips to accompany your cocoa. Throw on your favorite sweater, rip a copy of the Cocteau Twins’ Victorialand, and enjoy. Feel free to include suggestions in the comments section.
Jennifer Kelly is my favorite writer at Dusted, my go-to music e-zine. Recently she conceded that this year in music had a lot of contenders, but no clear leader of the pack. She then went on to list ten albums she really liked regardless of music critics’ echo chamber. It’s a good list, and I recommend you check it out. I also think you should give some time to Wetdog, a British punk band I learned about from her list.
In many ways, 2010 was an embarrassment of riches. So many big-name artists released career-peak records and lots of up-and-comers made me excited to listen to music each week (day? half-day? quarter-day? how rapid is the cycle now?). On paper, it’s a banner year. Yet I can’t pick one album that defines it. But that’s probably a good thing.
If I were to draft a list, three albums would place at #2. Critical darling Janelle Monáe comes the closest to topping my list. She defied commercial expectations with a pop album called The ArchAndroid about a futuristic metropolis that fused Prince with Octavia Butler. Joanna Newsom channeled Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell, and Blood on the Tracks-era Dylan to create the dusky reveries on the enveloping Have One on Me. LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy lifted synths straight out of Depeche Mode’s Black Celebration and the Eurythmics’ “Love Is a Stranger” while borrowing from Berlin-era Bowie for This Is Happening, which was book-ended by two of the man’s best songs.
The last two artists also managed to follow up and improve upon the albums that made them big tent attractions. Like most great pop music, they transcend their influences and ambitions. Yet each album is weighed down by at least one song. I always skip Happening‘s “You Wanted A Hit?,” which is too long and repetitive, even if it is aware of these things. I won’t fault Monáe and Newsom’s scope, but pruning a few tracks off for an EP or as b-sides might have been helpful. I think “Say You’ll Go” and “Kingfisher” don’t have the impact they could have elsewhere. If Newsom were referencing PJ Harvey’s Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, “Kingfisher” would be her “Horses in My Dreams,” but it’s buried here.
BTW, no one’s jostling for #3. It’s Flying Lotus’ elegantly trippy Cosmagramma all the way.
As with every year, there are albums that are overrated and underpraised. Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a perfect #11. It’s got fascinating angst and pathos that recalls another celebrity guilt rock record, Nirvana’s In Utero while squarely situating it as a black man’s experiences with fame. West’s bionic, prog-inflected production is the most potent it’s ever been. “All of the Lights” and “Monster” are among the year’s best songs, though credit goes solely to Nicki Minaj for the latter. But Jesus am I tired of reading ovations that cite the rapper’s Twitter feed. Yes, it provides insights into his process. And yes, it is noteworthy how West made so many tracks available to fans before the album was released (and maybe I’d bump it to #10 if “Chain Heavy” made the final cut). But it’s hardly album of the year or even a career best (in my opinion, he still hasn’t improved upon Late Registration).
Conversely, Spoon’s Transference is an ideal #9. People seem to hold one of America’s best rock bands in lower esteem this year for making an incomplete-sounding album. To my ears, this is an ingenious thing for a band so preoccupied with space and compositional austerity to do with a break-up record. I keep returning to tracks like “Is Love Forever” and “Nobody Gets Me,” yearning for a resolution I know I won’t find. I’d also mention that Marnie Stern‘s latest record (which would probably round out the top five) and Dessa‘s A Badly Broken Code (a peerless #4) were slept on. If they didn’t place higher, it’s only because they didn’t feel the need to announce their greatness and came on as slow burners. The same could be said of Seefeel‘s earthy dub on Faults (possibly #7) and Georgia Anne Muldrow, who had an incredibly prolific year that peaked with Kings Ballad (between #8-10). Psalm One’s Woman @ Work series on Bandcamp has me anticipating her next album. Oh, and since this was a year largely defined by albums about break-ups and shaky make-ups, Erykah Badu’s Second World War (#8) needs your attention.
There’s also lots of new stuff I liked this year that I hope ages with me. I’ve made peace with my misgivings about the limited shelf life of Sleigh Bells’ bubblegum through blown speakers, in part because Treats (#12-15 with some staying power) sounds amazing in the car, which is where all great pop records become immortal in the states. I’d like Best Coast more if leader Bethany Cosentino just went ahead and wrote a concept album about the munchies or her cat instead of devoting so many songs to boys. Sufjan Stevens’ indulgence bored me silly, as did Surfer Blood’s inability to rise past their influences and sound like themselves. Big Boi and Bun B’s ambitious releases deserve their accolades, but they should excite me more than they do. I have yet to fall in love with Robyn the way everyone else has, but Rihanna continues to be my girl.
I’m really into the new Anika record, which is tailor-made for insomniacs. However, I’m certain that a woman with a Teutonic monotone snarling her way through catatonia as producer Geoff Barrow quotes post-punk’s buzzsaw guitar noise holds limited appeal. I always welcome a new Gorillaz album, and Plastic Beach certainly delivered. Among others, I liked new efforts from Baths, El Guincho, Noveller, M.I.A., Grass Widow, Sharon Van Etten, Soft Healer, Beach House, Mountain Man, The Black Keys, Cee-Lo Green, Tobacco, Sky Larkin, Tame Impala, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, Nite Jewel, Deerhunter, Vampire Weekend, Warpaint, Antony and the Johnsons, The Budos Band, and Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, even if the last two artists essentially release the same great album each time out. And even though I get a free cocktail if Merge wins the Album of the Year Grammy, Matador had a good year for me with Glasser, Esben and the Witch, and Perfume Genius, whose harrowing confessionals will hopefully find a larger audience (Sufjan fans, listen up).
(Note: don’t get me started on the Arcade Fire. I’m going to be mean and unfair, as I’ve been since I gave up on liking Funeral. Suffice it to say, I’m not fond of them and think I can tell you more about living in a Houston suburb than they can. But it won’t be a productive conversation because I’ll tear up my throat launching cheap shots about dressing for the Dust Bowl and wearing denim jackets to prove that you’re one with the working man. It’s not helpful, so I’ll be kind and say they’re fine at what they do but I want no part of it.)
Part of why I can’t settle on a #1 is because I don’t think it matters. I don’t think I need an album to define the year for me. It’s always seemed that selecting one was a fool’s errand. Steve Albini may very well be an insufferable jerk, but he’s absolutely right when he said “Clip your year-end column and put it away for 10 years. See if you don’t feel like an idiot when you reread it.” Last year, I chose Neko Case’s Middle Cyclone. While it helped situate my feelings for the year, it can’t hold a candle to her modern classic Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. But now I’m not even sure what the point is. This exercise doesn’t take into account all of the older music I finally prioritized this year. For me, 2010 is just as much defined by digging through Cocteau Twins and Throwing Muses records (4AD had a good year in all kinds of ways), as well as getting excited about Mary Timony, Jenny Toomey, and Carla Bozulich.
Furthermore, I’ve sometimes lost sight of why I write in this medium. Apart from being vulnerable to having my content scraped by sketchy sites and feeling like I should be doing something more politically important with my time, it can be a challenge to keep the routine of blogging from dulling the impact of your work. This may have more to do with a need to explore scarier forms of writing, like the kind that requires the involvement of a guitar or a storyboard. As a departure, I started a film blog series for Bitch last month. It’s been the right kind of challenging, though I’m not always certain I’m effectively communicating what I hope to accomplish. Music allows for abstraction where films require exposition, which sometimes makes me feel like I’m writing several variations on “I walked to the chair and sat down.” But I’m learning and it’s been a lot of fun.
I’ve also been fortunate this year to contribute content for Bitch, Tom Tom Magazine, Elevate Difference, I Fry Mine in Butter, and Scratched Vinyl, for which I’m grateful and hope I’ve done a service to those publications. In addition to music critics I love like Laina Dawes, Maura Johnston, and Audra Schroeder, I’m excited and challenged by writing from Amy Andronicus, Always More to Hear, Soul Ponies, Jenny Woolworth, Sadie Magazine, Women in Electronic Music, This Recording, and regularly follow podcasts like Cease to Exist and Off Chances.
I don’t mean to be self-effacing toward my efforts, as I’m proud of them. It’s been a good year and it’s healthy to be critical when you’re taking stock. Perhaps I’m responding to a lack of stability. This was a year of change. Some changes were seismic, like when several friends had babies. Others were gradual, like my partner launching a successful music e-zine and me delving into the world of freelance writing in earnest while taking a deep breath and learning to play the guitar. While some friends returned to Austin, others moved away this year and more are soon to follow in 2011. There’s even an infinitesimal chance I’ll be in that number, but the likelihood of uprooting and leaving the food carts and backyard parties of my adopted home is so small and too profound to consider, so I push it away.
But as I’ve thought on these feelings during the year, the lyrics from LCD Soundsystem’s “Home” resonate. Though detractors may note Murphy’s manipulating my generation with lines like “love and rock are fickle things” and “you’re afraid of what you need . . . if you weren’t, I don’t know what we’d talk about,” I’ve taken comfort in crooning them in my car. That’s the best of what pop music can accomplish–taking abstractions and making them applicable to life’s mundane realities, at times clarifying their importance. In whatever medium, I can’t wait for another year of writing about it.